The 101-page report, “A Question of Security: Violence Against Palestinian Women and Girls,” based on field research conducted in the West Bank and Gaza in November 2005 and early 2006, documents dozens of cases of violence ranging from spousal and child abuse to rape, incest and murders committed under the guise of family “honor.” There is increasing recognition of the problem, and some PA officials have indicated their support for a more vigorous government response, but the PA has taken little action to prevent these abuses. As a result, violence against women and girls is often unreported, and even when it is, it usually goes unpunished.
“PA officials across the political spectrum appear to view security only within the context of the ongoing conflict and occupation, all but ignoring the very real security threats that women and girls face at home,” said Farida Deif, a researcher in the Women’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch and co-author of the report.
A combination of discriminatory laws that condone and perpetuate violence and the virtual absence of policies to assist victims of abuse have left Palestinian women and girls with little protection. All Palestinians suffer from the deficiencies of the existing criminal justice system in the OPT, but women pay a particularly high price for officials who are often unwilling to respond adequately to gender-based violence.
Discriminatory criminal legislation in force in the West Bank and Gaza has led to virtual impunity for perpetrators of such violence and has deterred victims from reporting abuse. These laws include provisions that: reduce penalties for men who kill or attack female relatives who commit adultery; relieve rapists who agree to marry their victims from any criminal prosecution; and allow only male relatives to file incest charges on behalf of minors. These laws deter women and girls from reporting abuse and provide virtual impunity for perpetrators.
With some exceptions, Palestinian police lack the expertise and the will to address violence against women in a manner that is effective, sensitive to the needs of the victim and respectful of their privacy. As a result, police officers often turn to informal measures rather than serious investigations. When questioned, many were unapologetic about their efforts to encourage marriage between a rapist and his victim, sometimes with the assistance of influential clan leaders. They see intervention as a means of “solving” these cases. In addition, police often force women to return to their families even when there is a substantial threat of further harm.
“When confronted with cases of violence against women and girls, the Palestinian criminal justice system is more interested in avoiding public scandal than in seeing justice done,” said Lucy Mair, the report’s other researcher and co-author. “A woman’s basic right to life and bodily integrity is seen as a secondary concern at best.”
The absence of medical guidelines for doctors also seriously affects the quality of treatment afforded to female victims of violence. The health care system is typically the first and sometimes the only government institution that victims of abuse come into contact with, yet doctors are ill-equipped to deal with such cases. The Ministry of Health has no medical procedures or protocols to guide medical professionals or ministry staff in their treatment of domestic violence cases. Doctors lack specialized training and guidance on how to treat women victims of violence, preserve evidence of the abuse, and maintain confidentiality.
While the availability of shelters has increased this year in the West Bank, movement restrictions within and between the West Bank and Gaza make it impossible for some victims of violence to reach these shelters, leaving them without a refuge. Sometimes the lack of shelters and socially acceptable living arrangements for single women has forced Palestinian women’s organizations and the police to house victims in police stations, governors’ offices, private homes, schools and orphanages.
While it is true that Israeli actions since the outbreak of the current intifada in September 2000 - including attacks on PA institutions and security services, and Israel’s current refusal to remit tax revenues - have significantly weakened PA capabilities, this is no excuse for inaction. Despite its political and economic challenges, the PA has built important new institutions and reformed and unified some laws, such as those governing the justice system and children’s rights. The same must be done to protect women and girls from family violence.
Human Rights Watch calls on the PA to establish guidelines for responding to family violence in line with international standards and to train government employees to recognize and respond appropriately to victims. The PA should also enact a specific law criminalizing domestic violence and repeal discriminatory laws that hinder efforts to tackle gender-based violence.
“The PA urgently needs to adopt a zero-tolerance policy for all forms of violence against women and girls,” said Deif. “Failing to offer women and all members of Palestinian society the highest protection of the law will only further erode faith in the Palestinian criminal justice system.”
Selected testimonies from “A Question of Security”:
“He [my husband] used to beat me everywhere. He beat me with a rock on my leg I never went to the hospital, and I didn’t even tell my parents. I was just thankful to be alive.” - Mariam Ismail (pseudonym), 35
“My problem started with my family. When I was 12, my brother attacked me, attacked me sexually My brother was 24. He’d hit me. Everyone in my family knew. My father died when I was small, so there was no one to protect me. My brother would even hit my mother. I didn’t report it since there was no one to protect me. I couldn’t tell the police. I was not allowed to even leave the house.” - Nada Omar (pseudonym), 30
“Rape cases are dealt with at the police station as special cases. Most of the time, the result is that they [the rapist and the victim] get married under the carpet to avoid scandal. Rape cases rarely go to courts In all of these cases, the police want to solve the matter within the family without documentation.” - Palestinian women’s rights activist, Gaza